More than four decades after a train derailment left a massive toxic chemical spill in a small upstate New York town, the Environmental Protection Agency announced Wednesday that they will begin removing 235 drums of dirt still sitting on the site.
The Lehigh Railroad Derailment Superfund site is located in Le Roy, N.Y.; the same town that has received national attention over the past several months because of a medical mystery involving a group of girls who suddenly began displaying Tourettes-like symptoms.
Last fall, about a dozen girls attending Le Roy High School began experiencing uncontrollable and painful tics, seizures, and verbal outbursts, which appear to be similar to the symptoms of Tourettes syndrome.
Today, nearly two dozen people, including one 36-year-old, are displaying the symptoms. Some in town have wondered whether there is some connection with the decades-old toxic chemical spill.
Enter Erin Brockovich, the environmental activist who became a household name after Julia Roberts portrayed her in an Academy Award winning film.
Brokovich was asked by some concerned parents in Le Roy to explore whether the spill could be linked to the bizarre symptoms their daughters are suffering.
The derailment left a spill of over 30,000 gallons of liquid trichloroethene (TCE) and cyanide crystals.
TCE is a dangerous man-made chemical that was once used as a solvent to remove grease from metal and to strip paint in manufacturing plants. Over the years, several studies have linked TCE exposure to certain types of cancer. Long-term exposure can affect the central nervous system, according to the National Institute of Health.
While the chemicals were reportedly cleaned up at the time, hundreds of barrels of TCE and cyanide contaminated earth gathered shortly after the spill remained at the site for 40-some years.
After a recent national media spotlight was shined on the Lehigh site, the EPA returned to test the barrels. The results? “No tested contaminants were detected in materials from 203 of the drums. In 32 of the drums, some detectable concentrations of contaminants were found.” The barrels will be removed by Friday and sent to a landfill that Lehigh is permitted to accept hazardous waste in Belleville, Mich.
Meanwhile, Brockovich’s colleague, environmental scientist Bob Bowcock also went to LeRoy last month to conduct preliminary tests. His results suggest that the plume of the contaminates did not move toward the Le Roy High School.
“This is good news,” said Bowcock. ”It is one of the many areas we are investigating where we are able to reprioritize, so we can focus our attention and resources on other environmental concerns” in Le Roy that might have caused recent health problems there.
Bowcock’s stresses that his investigation is looking at a myriad of environmental concerns, including the natural gas wells on the grounds of Le Roy High School, fill material used at the school, the routine complaints of fumes or odors in the school vent system, the school’s storm water system and biological and chemical concerns surrounding the school’s sports field.
And as of yet, Bowcock and Brockovich say, they have found no link between the spill and the Tourettes-like symptoms.
Nonetheless, Brockovich is not pleased with the EPA. In a letter to “Nightline” Anchor Cynthia McFadden, she said that the EPA is sending mixed messages. “On one hand, the EPA suggests they found no contamination in the barrels, but they go on to detail the contamination they did find, including TCE and cyanide.”
After reviewing the area for possible environmental causes of the illness and conducting testing in the area, Brockovich’s team came across the derailment site.
“We actually alerted the EPA that the rotting barrels were still there in Le Roy. They had no idea.” Brockovich said. ”The EPA didn’t even realize the barrels of hazardous material had never been disposed of properly.”
Brockovich calls the EPA’s press release a “feeble attempt to gloss over their abject failure in LeRoy,” and she said that the “EPA clearly dropped the ball.”
Calling the derailment site “the largest TCE Superfund site in the country,” Brockovich went on to say that “the EPA had responsibility to ensure that the polluter clean up the site and remove the drums of toxic waste within 30 days of being filled. And that never happened. ”
Brockovich also pointed out that it makes sense that only a small quantity of toxic chemicals were found. “Of course the levels are going to be low now after years of neglect that allowed those toxic chemical to be reintroduced to the environment. What were those contaminant levels 5 years ago?”
According to Bowcock there are approximately 15,000 Superfund sites in the United States and Le Roy is just one example of thousands of towns that are unaware of their environmental surroundings.
“The EPA is failing – it is not protecting people, it is not protecting the environment,” Brockovich said. ”Sadly, it takes citizens like me, and the people of the impacted communities, to speak up and fix problems that should have been dealt with years ago.”
The EPA declined ABC News’ request for comment.
“Nightline” anchor Cynthia McFadden contributed to this report.